A Handy Guide to Picking the Right Design Tool
Helping UX professionals make sense of the ever-changing landscape of design tools
Looking at ALL the different tools available to designers is pretty impressive, but for many, it’s pretty overwhelming.
It’s a great time to be in the field, but I also miss simpler times a decade ago (you’ll use Fireworks, Photoshop, or Illustrator, and you’ll like it!). But the challenging side of these choices is that…well…it’s hard to choose.
Sites like uxtools.co and digitaldesign.tools help by showing the myriad choices. UX Tools in particular does an excellent job of breaking down tools and usage based on different stages of the design process.
Jon, editing this article: “I resent that.”
But it can also be challenging to figure out who or what to listen to. Tools themselves often advertise feature-first, without making it clear what it is they do best (you can make icons in Sketch, but it’s not the best tool for it). Practitioners, on the other hand, can also be a bit dogmatic about what tools you should use — forgetting that their perspective is (naturally) self-centered.
Often, there is no “right” tool. Even I will chastise other UX designers for using anything other than Sketch. But I have come to believe that designers have different styles which make certain more or less important. Maybe collaboration isn’t that important to your design team. Or you don’t care whether your design tool spits out real code. You might even be one of those renegades who designs on Windows!
Every designer is different, and volume of tools we have today should enable this diversity.
So, how can designers make sense of the tool landscape? Sites like UX Tools are great but they don’t help people who don’t even know what they should be looking for. A quick scan shows that most design tools have the “Pen Tool” but why is that useful? Should I be looking at a Versioning tool?
In this article, I’ll provide considerations and key questions to help you figure out how to pick the right tool — or suite of tools — for the job.
Collaboration with other designers
Okay, let’s start with one of the most common trends in design today. I currently have a Medium draft titled, “Am I the only designer who doesn’t want to collaborate inside my design file?”
I wrote this article instead.
The point is, just like movements like “designers need to code,” it is easy to get swept up and believe that this is THE way to do things. But there are many different design team setups, and designer personalities which dictate how important this may or may not be.
Collaboration is important in design, but it absolutely does NOT have to happen in a tool.
- Do you work in the same office?
- Do you have design team studio or critique sessions?
- Do you adhere strictly to standards?
Personally, I have never found much need to have a tool that supports collaboration. I share my designs, and I even have other designers edit my own work. But I tend to be fairly personal with my work, and would rather collaborate on my own terms through ad-hoc whiteboarding sessions and design presentations.
- Wake (now owned by InVision) — great for ongoing communication of design work.
- Figma — Built for collaboration from the ground up.
Collaboration with non-designers
We all collaborate with people outside our design team. But how this makes it into your tool depends on what that looks like.
For those in a dev-heavy environment, you may be attaching designs to stories in Jira. For those in agencies, you may be sharing designs remotely with stakeholders. And others may simply create presentations with mockups.
- Is your collaboration with clients or internal stakeholders?
- Do you work on an agile team alongside developers?
- UXPin — Integrates well with dev project management tools and handles documentation out of the box.
- InVision — Really can’t beat this for most non-design team collaboration.
Like design collaboration, this is another hot-button issue. For some teams, designers may also do coding, but for others, designers simply hand off designs to development to be implemented.
- Are designers tasked with front-end coding as well as design?
- Are you working with strong front-end developers?
- Do you actually even work with developers?
- Zeplin — The absolute best for dev handoff, bar none.
- InVision Inspect— It’s great if you want to keep everything in their ecosystem, but it occasionally renders things a little strangely.
Simply put, the larger the team, the more specialized the design roles. That means you may have visual designers who do this part of the work separate from the designers wireframing. You’ll also see visual design increase in importance based on how closely your product is tied to marketing.
- Do you work closely with a marketing or sales team?
- Do you have visual designers on your team?
- Axure Software — Perfect for large teams where UX designers are not tasked with visual design. A “pure” UX tool if there ever was one.
- Sketch — On the other hand, Sketch is by far the best tool for those needing to polish their UX designs.
Another rabbit hole to get sucked into. Not every designer’s or product’s animation needs are the same.
- Do you need custom animations or simply page transitions?
- Do you like to experiment with new animation patterns?
- Can you simply point to Dribbble or CodePen for an animation idea?
- Principle — A great tool for doing page-level and component-level animations.
- Spirit — New to the game, but showing lots of promise for custom animations. (I talk about this later, too.)
- Framer Team — Capacity to create complex animations, with code to go along.
- After Effects — For purely custom animations, this is still the best tool.
- A million others, but I find these to be the standouts…
As mentioned previously, team size has a lot of impact on tools. Large teams today are driving forward design systems and dev handoff in a big way. For these teams, efficiency and consistency are key.
As a result, the thought leadership coming from these teams does paint the industry with a broad brush, and certain tools may not be needed at certain team sizes.
- How many designers are on your immediate team?
- Are you part of a suite of products or larger product line?
- Do you have well-defined standards?
- Sketch — Duh, you pretty much need this to do anything.
- InVision DSM (previously Brand.ai) — The best tool for syncing design systems between designers.
- Abstract — In short, GitHub for designers. Great for large teams, I wish I had a use case for this personally.
As a design manager, I’ve become more of a laggard and less of an early adopter when it comes to tools because my team doesn’t have the time to learn new tools very often. As a result, I typically only adopt tools when they are mature enough that I’m confident I will get the support I need.
- Do you have down time for your team to experiment with tools?
- Do you have well-defined needs that aren’t currently being met with tools
Not quite applicable here. But if you want a random recommendation for an early stage tool, I’m very into Spirit Studio for animation.
Lastly we come to graphics. This is a bone I’m throwing to the Adobe products because I think they still are the best when it comes to the heavy-duty projects. It’s true that tools like Sketch, InVision Studio, or Figma can do a lot of amazing vector art, but for truly custom illustrations and graphics, that’s not their specialty.
- Do you need custom illustrations or can you tweak stock graphics?
- Do you need custom icons?
- Photoshop* — Still the best raster design program
- Illustrator* — Still the best vector design program
- Nucleo — for easily customizable stock vector graphics, this is the best.
*just don’t use either of those for UI design. Or else!
Feature comparison is a good start for design tools, but it’s still hard to figure out how it relates to your own workflow. Design tools often brag about being able to do everything which makes it even harder. And even worse, everyone who loves a tool claims everyone should use it (like I do with Sketch).
But these questions will help guide you toward making better decisions by breaking out of the feature-function tables and thinking more about what’s important for your needs.